When one person in the family falls into addiction, the whole family is inevitably impacted. Many times, family members start to develop patterns of behavior that compensate for the addict’s role. This adaptation helps each member of the family to somehow stabilize and normalize situations that make them feel threatened and insecure.
Family members are also known to switch roles or even adopt multiple roles at the same time. This part of the addictive cycle runs through most—if not all—families of addicts and can have many, ever-changing variations.
Here are 5 unhealthy roles observed in the families of active addicts, and the possible ways for each of them to readjust their lives.
1. The Enabler
This person becomes the primary caregiver for the family. They protect the family, even when their skills are dysfunctional and ineffective. They usually adopt the roles of cooking, cleaning and child care. This family member may be a parent, but it can also be a child. Most of the time, they assume the role without being aware of the escalating responsibilities and their own emotions caused by the addict’s progressively addictive and destructive behavior. They become angry and martyred as time goes by.
The enabler role’s core traits are best used and most healthily valued in settings where diverse groups of people have to gather. The people who assume this role can balance out their own lives and feel rewarded by recognizing their choices in life and making time for themselves to engage in healthy relationships where boundaries are present and everyone carries their own weight.
2. The Hero
This role represents a coping mechanism where a family member finds an escape through perfectionism and overachievement. They may excel at school, sports or career, often to the point that they seldom interact with the family. Their sense of shame around the addiction of a family member compels them to be the best at everything, thus frequently drawing attention away from their source of shame. They seldom receive intrinsic motivation for their drive to excel, often having little or no sense of accomplishment. They usually suffer from feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, despite great rewards from those around them.
This person can gain self-efficacy and fulfillment when working toward goals with a group. They can resolve their sense of shame and become dynamic leaders and speakers, encouraging others to achieve with some of the same skills they’ve used to adapt and cope.
3. The Scapegoat
This person is often called the “problem child” of the family, although they may be one of the parents, as well. They struggle to appropriately behave in any setting, often getting into trouble with the law and other authorities. They’re also likely to engage in drug use, fighting and angry outbursts, sexual misconduct, and other behaviors that bring them negative attention at school, home or work. They display reactive emotional responses to what is going on in the family, without the ability to verbalize their real needs for affection, closeness and security.
When they become more integrated and emotionally balanced, people in the scapegoat role are usually great entertainers. They may adopt healthier ways of getting attention, such as becoming actors, comedians, etc. They enjoy the spotlight and can find balance in working out their emotional disparity in humor.
4. The Lost Child
The lost child withdraws from family and their own emotional turmoil to dive into a fantasy life. The may become avid readers, TV and movie watchers, or celebrity superfans. They spend most of their time alone, having trouble interacting with others in any real or significant way. While they often seem to be independent or shy, they are inconsolable about their loss of connection with others. Learning to be alone, they may end up retreating further into addictions with food, drugs, computer games or other solo pursuits.
These individuals are great at self-motivation and can often work in fields such as writing or the arts, needing little social impetus to succeed in these types of pursuits.
5. The Mascot
This family member is often the entertainer or clown of the family. They develop strong social skills, which allow them to find purpose outside the family setting where they feel confused and lost. Their methods may include being cute, humorous and often hyperactive. These behaviors cover up their deep insecurity and inability to cope with emotions or serious issues, such as those going on in the dysfunctional family. They do not have skills to allow for healthy expression of emotions, and cover them with endearing or cutesy behavior.
This person can become an entertainer, when balanced by understanding and integrating deep emotions. Unlike the scapegoat, they have little emotional response to life, and must learn to embrace emotions of pain and joy alike in order to find a healthy balance. They can make good cheerleaders, motivators and entertainers when this balance is found.
1. Came to Believe. Common Roles in Dysfunctional Families. Retrieved online from: http://livinginthemystery.blogspot.com/2009/12/common-roles-in-dysfunctional-families.html
2. Wegscheider-Cruse, Sharon. (1989). Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. Science and Behavior Books; 2 edition.